Evolution threatening storied positions
Back in the 1960s, USC coach John McKay was asked whether it was a good idea to have star tailback O.J. Simpson carry the football 40 or more times a game.
"Why not?" the famously funny McKay responded. "It isn't very heavy. Besides, he doesn't belong to a union."
Today the football must feel like an anvil, or there must be a secret International Brotherhood of Running Backs out there. Because nobody carries it 40 times anymore. Heck, nobody carries it 30 times. Very few even carry it 25 times a game.
These are the positional endangered species in a game that is evolving before our very eyes. The personnel that made Barry Switzer a big shot is not the same as what Urban Meyer wins championships with today.
That's not necessarily breaking news. But sometimes the incremental changes don't register until you look up in the middle of an ongoing trend and notice the big-picture transformation.
There have been a few catalysts: Liberalized blocking rules helped pass protection; Miami-style speed on defense hastened the demise of option football; the West Coast offense promoted the short passing game and dramatically improved efficiency numbers; and the spread offense has taken it from there.
The spread has put the game more in the quarterbacks' hands and taken it out of the running backs'. If quarterbacks aren't throwing it, they're running it on the zone read. Nearly half of the Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the BCS conferences had a quarterback among their top three rushers in 2008 (32 of 65), and 29 percent of those teams had a quarterback among the top two ground gainers (19 of 65).
Not coincidentally, quarterbacks dominated the Heisman Trophy voting in 2008 and have won eight of the past nine Heismans.
Even on the teams that favor handoffs over quarterback keepers, there is a growing trend to parcel out carries with an eyedropper -- even among the most talented and productive running backs. (Look no further than Florida, which outside of Tim Tebow's 176 attempts had none of its speedy runners carry the ball 85 times last season.)
From 2000 to 2005, the FBS had an average of 6.2 backs per season who averaged at least 25 carries per game. In the three years since, the average has dropped to three. Last year there were only two: Michigan State's Javon Ringer at 30 carries a game and Connecticut's Donald Brown at 28.2. And both of those guys are now in the NFL.
The leading candidate to carry it 25 times a game in 2009? Look to Corvallis, where Oregon State leaned on 5-foot-7, 193-pound Jacquizz Rodgers to tote it 23.5 times per game last year as a true freshman.
And he lived to tell about it, even in this age of dainty running backs. His coach, Mike Riley, has had a stable of workhorse backs: Yvenson Bernard, Steven Jackson, Ken Simonton and now Rodgers.
"I find a comfort in having that really good back and giving him the ball a lot," Riley said. "They've usually been our best players, and when you have to win at the end, they're getting their 24th, 25th, 30th carry. At the end of the game, I believe, you run to win."
Riley has won plenty of late -- 28 games the past three seasons. So don't expect him to join the running-back-by-committee movement.
"Football goes through these trends," Riley said, then laughed. "I'm just going to wait until people come back to us."
And those kinds of recruits are scarcer than ever.
"What's been harder for us is to find a guy that's been taking the snap from underneath the center, not just the shotgun," Petrino said. "That's something that is holding [redshirt freshman] Tyler Wilson back a little bit right now. He was a very good high school football player, won a couple state championships, but since eighth grade, he took every snap no-huddle shotgun. Didn't even step in the huddle and call a play. Didn't get underneath the center and learn how to make a handoff.
"It's taken him some time just to do those things -- get the play from us, step in the huddle, call it with confidence, get everyone to break the huddle and believe in the play, be able to get underneath the center, get out from underneath the center with the ball in his hand, either take a three-step, five-step or seven-step drop."
Riley said that at some of Oregon State's summer camps there are quarterbacks who have never taken a snap under center in their lives. Which also means they've never taken a seven-step drop or worked on traditional play-action passing.
"It's weird," Riley said. "To me, that's just part of playing quarterback."
Indiana coach Bill Lynch believes the running game can be compromised by the shotgun formation, with backs failing to gain forward momentum toward the line of scrimmage. That's the main reason Lynch has gone with a Nevada-inspired pistol formation for this season. Petrino agrees, citing "mesh points" on handoff exchanges for why Arkansas will continue to run the ball from old-fashioned formations.
"I've always believed the quarterback has to make the running back better by getting him the ball exactly where he needs it," Petrino said. "So his vision, his ability to cut back, you're helping make him a better player. That's something that is kind of missing out there in recruiting right now.
"I'm really happy that the high schools are throwing the ball, that there's so much shotgun, there's so many indoor practice facilities now, so they're throwing year-round. I really love all the seven-on-seven passing tournaments they're having. I just wish that they would maybe put a rule in that they have to have at least 25-40 percent from underneath the center."
Defensive coaches probably would like to keep their base lineup on the field for 40 percent of a game these days. Against an effective spread, that doesn't happen. The standard front seven just isn't going to work.
"It's virtually impossible to have the four down linemen and your three normal linebackers on the field," said Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, who cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball ages ago. "We'll go to two linebackers and add a nickelback. If forced to, we'll go to our dime package and play with one linebacker."
To contend with perimeter speed, defenses are forced to go small and fast against four-wide and five-wide sets. The problem, then, is when a battering ram of a quarterback like Tim Tebow comes at nickelbacks weighing 40 pounds less than he does.
"The one thing that probably Florida has done better than anybody they run it a lot better because of Tim Tebow's threat as a runner," Brooks said. "Not just the running backs, the receiver coming in and taking it, but Tim Tebow's presence as a runner and a thrower make that offense even a more difficult thing to defend."
Tebow's multidimensional abilities, snugly fit into Meyer's spread strategy, are part of the wave that is changing the game at the college level. Unless it can be effectively counter-programmed, some endangered football species could become extinct.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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